WASHINGTON -- The Democrats are beginning to have some second thoughts about their plan to force President Bush into a politically embarrassing veto of an abortion rights bill. The obvious explanation is that they have been reading the opinion polls.
The original plan hatched by the Democrats was to pass the so-called "Freedom of Choice Act" early enough so that the president would be obliged to veto it, as he has pledged he will do, before the Republican National Convention opens in Houston Aug. 17. Such a strategy, they figured, might exacerbate the tensions over the abortion question already expected to be prominently on display at the convention.
But now both Speaker of the House Thomas Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell are signaling delays that mean the bill won't be approved until sometime in the middle of the campaign -- late September or early October -- if at all this year. Nose-counters say there are enough votes to pass it in both houses although perhaps not enough to break a filibuster in the Senate. But the real problem is the possibility of some politically touchy votes on amendments.
The "Freedom of Choice Act" endorses the position of the Democratic Party's platform by essentially codifying the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Opinion polls show consistently that such a position -- preserving Roe vs. Wade -- enjoys the support of most Americans. If there is a national consensus on the issue, it is that government has no business interfering in a woman's decision on whether to have an abortion.
But the electorate is not always totally consistent. The polls als show equally strong majorities for two of the restrictions approved by the Supreme Court in the Pennsylvania decision handed down June 29 -- requirements that minors seeking abortions obtain parental consent and that all women be obliged to observe a 24-hour waiting period.
The political problem here lies in the fact that the leading abortion rights groups, as well as the Democratic Party, oppose any restrictions on the ground that once a government role in the decision is sanctioned, there is no telling what restrictions might be written into state laws. But for their Democratic allies to sustain that position in Congress right now, they could be obliged to vote against popular amendments to require parental consent and the 24-hour waiting period.
A leading Republican abortion rights advocate, Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, seems likely to assure that dilemma by proposing that the Congress codify not Roe vs. Wade but that June 29 decision in the Pennsylvania case permitting restrictions that do not impose an "undue burden" on a woman seeking an abortion. By voting against those limits, the Democrats could make themselves vulnerable to charges, however invalid, that they favor "abortion on demand" -- meaning at any time under any circumstances. The polls show the voters don't like that idea either.
The Democratic problem is further complicated by some divisions within their party -- most notably the vociferous opposition to abortion rights being expressed by Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania. He suggested sarcastically the other day that Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton might consider hiring "Kate Michelman to run the campaign in Pennsylvania" -- a reference to the head of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
The problem for the Democrats with the congressional action doesn't mean, however, that President Bush isn't facing far more serious trouble in dealing with the abortion rights issue in the campaign against Clinton. Both survey results and some election returns have demonstrated that the abortion rights issue is one on which some Republican women, particularly in the suburbs, will cross party lines. Moreover, the issue clearly will be forced front and center in Houston later this month when it may be the only source of serious dissent among the convention delegates.
But the lesson in the second thoughts of Foley and Mitchell is that the abortion issue is not the cut and dried political bonanza for the Democrats they had thought it to be before the Pennsylvania decision.